By Patrick R. Shepard
In the 1870s, James Samuel Oliver arrived in the Mississippi Delta by swimming across the Mississippi River—with a fresh bullet wound in his leg. He later journeyed deep into the swampy wilderness known as the Mississippi Delta. Oliver cleared timber and carved out a plantation home near Indianola, Mississippi.
More than 140 years later, his great grandson, James Allen Oliver, traces the Oliver family history from the late 1800s until today in his book, The Oliver Family, Mississippi Delta Legacy. Oliver, a long-time Mississippi Delta resident, based his book on many years of research in county courthouses, libraries and graveyards, and several generations of oral stories. He explains, “My family members and friends represent many other Mississippi Delta families that helped shape the region for five generations. And the Delta helped shape us. My family’s stories are representative of those of many other Mississippi Delta families passed down in record, oral history, and family folk lore, which may or may not have been diminished, exaggerated, or embellished with time.”
Newspaper clippings and courthouse records substantiate many of the hardships generations of Olivers endured and overcame. “The mortar bonding the bricks are the many family stories that have been passed down orally generation to generation since the late 1800s,” he adds. “I felt I needed to put the family lore on paper before these stories are lost—like the wild frontier the Delta once was.”
This unique Delta book also explores several major events that helped change the Mississippi Delta: the arrival of the White Man; the American Civil War; The Immigrants, including the Irish and the Italians as well as race relations between blacks and whites through the generations; the Great Flood of 1927; the Great Depression; and the Mechanization and modern technology of Agriculture. Indians lived in the Mississippi Delta for more than 10,000 years and never changed the area. The white man completely transformed it within 150 years.
James Allen Oliver, whose mother was a Faulkner, is a life-long Mississippi Delta native, who grew up at Goose Hollow southwest of Indianola. After a successful career in the global crop protection business, he developed and sold several off-patent product companies. He and his wife, Patricia Ruggeri Oliver, who is a granddaughter of Italian Delta immigrants, now reside in Hernando, Mississippi, and own a number of Mississippi Delta farms, including some land that had been cleared by his great grandfather, James Samuel Oliver, almost 150 years ago. His blending of the Oliver Delta story, with his Italian wife’s family’s journey from the Old World to the great Mississippi Delta, helps explain how the Delta grew into what it is today, with the many diverse cultures that exist here.
The New Delta
The book is not just an intriguing look back at a fascinating region; Oliver also envisions a New Delta—and what it will take to develop it. “I believe the Mississippi Delta is being rebuilt daily,” he explains, “similar to the Old South after the Civil War. For example, I fly past the beautiful new Greenville Mississippi River Bridge and see the future of the New Delta. The new Mississippi Delta will look much different than the old.
“The region possesses the most fertile land in the world with plentiful water. Currently we are using ground water, but billions of gallons of Mississippi River, and huge reservoirs of water, flowing by the Delta daily on its way to empty in the Gulf of Mexico. High-tech industry will follow our agriculture and our Mississippi Delta natural resources. These are just a few of the reasons why my family continues to strategically invest in the Mississippi Delta. We want our children and grandchildren to be part of this great Mississippi Delta as it continues to develop. I still see the Mississippi Delta as James Samuel Oliver saw the Delta in the early 1870s. The possibility he saw still exists, but now with much greater value.”
Paintings by renowned Delta artist Carol Heathman Polasini, and original photographs illustrate The Oliver Family, Mississippi Delta Legacy, which can be ordered by going to oliverdeltalegacy.com